Wollstonecraft, Wrongs of Woman + Johnson, Equivocal Beings

This week, along with the Wollstonecraft Wrongs of Woman, I’d like you to read the Introduction and Chs. 1 and 2 (Wollstonecraft) portions of Claudia Johnson’s Equivocal Beings, which is available online through the library catalog. 

Please collect a few passages from both MW and the Johnson, and be prepared to talk about how “sentimentality” affects the “literary,” “realism,” and “politics” questions we’ve pursued this term in other authors. Post your best passage or question below in the comments.

Bonus question: how many different ways are female novelists and audiences caught up in the question of cultural transmission? How do those get figured by MW and her contemporaries?

Have a great weekend,



[Missing: Valentine, Shepherd, McCafferty, Maillet, Robinson]


Author: Dave Mazella

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, Department of English, specializing in 18th-century British literature.

4 thoughts on “Wollstonecraft, Wrongs of Woman + Johnson, Equivocal Beings”

  1. “In the brilliant light of Maria’s gesture of affiliation to Jemima, the inset tales throughout this novel read self-correctively. Once the Jemima/Maria plot becomes an alternative, a way out of the love plot, we are invited to critique the female-to-female violence the tales elsewhere disclose.” (Johnson 67)
    Here, Johnson indicates that the framing of the novel’s first-person narratives is essential for the experience of reading them. Most of the passages I have gathered deal with the presentation of Maria and Jemima’s stories, more specifically with the circumstances which drive the sharing of those narratives.

    “And Jemima, after again patrolling the passage, was so softened by the air of confidence which breathed around her, that she voluntarily began an account of herself.” (91)
    Jemima feels compelled to relate her story by a sense of being “treated like a fellow-creature,” springing from identification with her company (91). Her narrative is spoken, by anticipates the memoirs of Maria which will follow shortly after.

    “He […] so earnestly entreated to be allowed, according to promise, to beguile the tedious moments of absence, by dwelling on the events of her past life, that she sent him the memoirs which had been written for her daughter, promising Jemima the perusal as soon as he returned them.” (110).
    “Addressing these memoirs to you, my child, uncertain whether I shall ever have an opportunity of instructing your, many observations will probably flow from my heart, which only a mother—a mother schooled in misery, could make.” (110)
    Darnford receives the memoirs prior to Jemima; we can presume to read them as Darnford had done, as their presentation is immediately followed by the third-person narration of his returning them. However, the memoirs begin with an address to Maria’s daughter, for whom they were originally composed. She shares them with Darnford because she had promised to tell him her story, and also “promises” them to Jemima; that doesn’t change that they were, in form, intended for a different audience.

    Drawing upon Johnson’s ideas, it seems that the material surrounding the inset stories, functioning as narration of lived experience/perspective, provides us with means to critique them. Maria and Darnford’s initial connection is through literature and the response to text (in the form of Darnford’s marginal notes); Jemima characterizes herself as having “acquired a taste for literature” (101). I’m interested in what we can say about the role of literature and the creation—and perhaps reception—of texts in the novel.


  2. Excellent, Alissa. The narrative transmission of those stories allows for a certain sharing of sentiment, even across class lines. What kinds of obstacles to shared feelings does the novel depict? In other words, why these extra steps or false starts, given the horrors the novel describes?


  3. In thinking about Clarissa and Evelina last week, you may recall that I was interested in how the domestic sphere was represented, particularly in whether or not it was presented as a safe place. The answer in Maria, or The Wrongs of Women would be a resounding no. Marriage is presented as pretty much always terrible for women, but the home in childhood is also shown as a dangerous place (e.g., Jemima’s story and Maria’s treatment by her brother). In The Age of Chivalry and the Crisis of Gender, after listing a series of wrongs, Johnson asserts that “these instances blast sentimental myths about the safety of women within the domestic sphere (80).” (Side note: it’s interesting to me that the book “blasts” sentimental myths while in other ways it’s a sentimental novel itself.) And these wrongs are not presented as isolated incidents, but rather as evidence of a systemic problem. In fact, in her preface, Wollstonecraft states her “main object” as being to exhibit “the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society (157).” It’s not only personal but political, echoing Johnsons’s description of sentimentality as “politics made intimate (2).” Some relevant quotes:

    “Was not the world a vast prison and women born slaves?”(167)

    “ . . . she [Jemima] had felt the crushing hand of power, hardened by the exercise of injustice, and ceased to wonder at the perversions of the understanding, which systematic oppression . . . (167)”

    “ . . . I could not sometimes help regretting my early marriage; and that, in my haste to escape from a temporary dependence, and expand my newly fledged wings, in an unknown sky, I had been caught in a trap, and caged for life (233).”

    “Humanity, compassion, and the interest produced by a habit of living together, made me try to relieve, and sympathize with him; but, when I recollected that I was bound to live with such a being forever—my heart died within me . . . Marriage had bastilled me for life . . . fettered by the partial laws of society, this fair glove was to me an universal blank (243–44).”

    “Such are the partial laws enacted by men for, only to lay a stress on the dependent state of woman in the grand question of the comforts arising from the possession of property, she is much more injured by the loss of the husband’s affection, than he by that of his wife; yet where is she, condemned to the solitude of a deserted home, to look for a compensation from the woman, who seduces him from her? She cannot drive an unfaithful husband from his house, nor separate; or tear, his children from him, however culpable he may be; and he, still the master of his own fate, enjoys the smiles of a world, that would brand her with infamy, did she, seeking consolation, venture to retaliate (244–45).”

    “No; he can robe her [his wife] with impunity, even to waste publicly on a courtesan; and the laws of her country—if women have a country—afford her no protection or redress from the oppressor, unless she have the plea of bodily fear . . . (248)”

    “. . . when a woman was once married, she must bear everything (259).”


  4. Passages from Johnson that stood out to me:

    1790’s novels are “distinctive first and foremost for their egregious affectivity” (1)

    “When we turn from Burke’s Marie-Antoinette to…Wollstonecraft’s reactionary judge pronouncing a wronged woman insane because she has honored her own feelings rather than those of her odious husband, we encounter plots strained to the breaking point precisely because characters have learned that their feeling is a matter of national security” (3)

    I’m sure this was discussed more in class yesterday, but in the beginning I struggled a bit with the notion that there’s more “sentimentality” in Wollstonecraft than in Clarissa. Clarissa’s letters are often full of her feelings: that she can’t believe she has made a rash decision to leave with Lovelace, that she abhors what he has done to her. Maria, in some moments, seemed absent of affect: I haven’t had a chance to go back and find the passage, but there are moments that were surprisingly without affect: “I allowed my husband to know my person.” And then little else is said. For all the moments of lofty description of rainbows and feeling upon Maria’s return to her hometown after her marriage, this moment seems like it would be another opportunity for describing her feelings, but she doesn’t.

    As I came upon moments where the text is more focused on affect, however,—if affect, as a I understand it to be, is description of feeling—I began to see what I think Johnson is getting at, though I still feel unsure:

    “This was the first time I had visited my native village, since my marriage. But with what different emotions did I return from the busy world, with a heavy weight of experience benumbing my imagination, to scenes that whispered recollections of joy and hope most eloquently to my heart! The first scent of the wild flowers from the heath, thrilled through my veins, awakening every sense to pleasure—the icy hand of despair seemed to be removed from my bosom; and—forgetting my husband—the nurtured visions of a romantic mind, bursting on me with all their original wildness and gay exuberance, were again hailed as sweet realities. I forgot, with equal facility, that I ever felt sorrow, or knew care in the country; while a transient rainbow stole athwart the cloudy sky of despondency.” (143-144).

    I can’t recall a passage this strictly focused on description of feeling in Clarissa. In Clarissa, letters seem more often dedicated to analysis of morality than to analysis of feeling. I think, also of this passage from Maria:

    “He became, unaccountable as was the change, tender and attentive; and, attacking my weak side, made a confession of his follies, and lamented the embarrassments in which I, who merited a far different fat, might be involved. He besought me to aid him with my counsel, praised my understanding, and appealed to the tenderness of my heart. This conduct only inspired me with compassion. I wished to be his friend; but love had spread his rosy pinions, and fled far, far away; and had not (like some exquisite perfumes, the fine spirit of which is continually mingling with the air) left a fragrance behind, to mark where he had shook his wings. My husband’s renewed caresses then became hateful to me; his brutality was tolerable, compared to his distasteful fondness. Still, compassion, and the fear of insulting his supposed feelings, by a want of sympathy, made me dissemble, and do violence to my delicacy. What a talk!” (145-146)

    Comparing this interaction between Maria and her husband to the interactions between Clarissa and Lovelace, I am again reminded that often the moments between Clarissa and Lovelace seemed focused on morality: that it was wrong for Lovelace to be so manipulative, or wondering whether or not Lovelace intends marriage, or Clarissa analyzing whether or not she has done the right thing in a certain in instance. By contrast, the above passage is very focused on how Maria’s husband makes her feel.


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